Water Woes with Shekhar Kapur
When I first met filmmaker and activist Shekhar Kapur, he asked me about my jeans. Did I know their history? In particular, did I know how much water was used in the process of producing them. I did not. He informed me that every pair of jeans consumes 6,000 liters of water in the process of production.
For Kapur, water is always on his mind. It has been for over a decade, when he first began to take notice of the water wars developing around the world. Since then, he’s been crafting Paani, a film that looks at the complexities of our modern day water woes, which he hopes to start filming later this year.
Water is a chaotic topic: messy, intricate, and complex. That is, because there is no one solution to the global shortages of water, the inequalities in water distribution, the contamination of water, and the privatization of water. To fix the world’s water problems doesn’t just require the government to manage its resources better, the private sector to avoid exploiting one of life’s most fundamental sources, citizens to take notice, or communities to come together. It requires all of the above, Kapur says.
Most of all, he says, it requires a collective consciousness to understand the magnitude of the challenges with water. “Twelve years ago, if I’d walked down the streets of NYC or LA and asked, what is going to be the cause of the next war, most people would have said bombs. Today, 90% would say, water.”
If people get it, then why don’t the powers that be? In India, for instance, where Kapur resides and works, water shortages in the metros are reaching breaking point every year, particularly in the summer months when demand rises and supply can barely meet up.
Dowser: How is modern urban life connected to the water wars?
Kapur: Urbanization doesn’t take place around water anymore. Before people used to gather together around a water source. That’s not the case anymore. Cities are based on ideas, ways of living, instead. And because they’re densely populated, they’re a good source of votes for governments. So, the government will do what it needs to bring water to these cities, even if they’re damaging rural areas in the process. So, for instance, to meet Delhi’s water needs, water is drawn from Himachal. But think about where our food is grown. It’s in the farms in rural India. So, the government is not innovating but just trying to do what it needs to get the votes.
Middle class India is already experiencing this problem. It’s not a poor man’s problem. They’ve been living with it for a long time. The poor have learned to deal with it. Every morning in the metros across India, people are waking up at 4 am to collect the water for the day. In middle class families, that bucket is in their homes. In lower middle class homes, they have to go to a communal tap for it. The story of the empty tap is a middle class story.
But yes, there is a lot of waste, especially among the rich. In Mumbai, there are new apartment buildings that advertise a swimming pool on every 3rd floor. How are they going to get the water up there? They say they’re buying water from the municipal, but it’s actually the black market. In 5 – 10 years, the black marketing of water will be common. It’s already happening in India. Then, people will sell it for the highest profit.
How does the clean water debate differ from water wars? Is it a completely different ball game?
Clean water is a shortage of water. When water can’t flow, it becomes stagnant and contaminated. There are technologies to make that water clean but how many of them are low-cost and sustainable. That’s the challenge. The will to make that technology available does not exist. In India, infant mortality is caused primarily by malnourishment and water-borne diseases. But there’s a lack of political will to make these changes, to clean up the water.
It’s not as if there isn’t clean water. You can buy bottled water, which may in 10 years turn out to be a carcinogen, but you won’t have diarrhea or get sick now. The problem is who can afford the bottled water – it’s the price problem.
Most people cannot pay for clean water.
Currently, there is interest in privatizing water because it’s not been managed well by governments. Do you see that as part of the solution to the water woes?
This is a great raging debate right now. But let’s theorize this and compare it to air. Now, instead of water, let’s say we put a price on air. So, if you want to use air effectively, pay for it. Well, the what would happen to the companies that are pushing smoke into the air?
Compare that to companies that are putting chemicals into water, or pumping so much water out for agricultural purposes. What is the effect on the small farmer then? Causing him to scramble, basically.
Right now if you walk into a big investment company and ask what should I invest in, they’ll tell you water. The profitability of water is going to rise. That’s done by hoarding it and selling it. The dangers of pricing water is that it makes it into a commodity. And then, you’re commoditizing the second largest resource on the earth (after air).
So, companies don’t work. But, governments have not been able to manage water well either. What about governments – don’t they see their people dying of water-borne diseases?
The systems of government do not work. They’ve taken away any moral authority that people had before. It’s been said again and again that when people have to use the natural resources, they’ve learned ways to live in a symbiotic relationship with natural resources. When centralized authority has come in, they’ve used it for power and revenue. We have to find a different administrative system.
So, privatization doesn’t work, governments don’t work. Water seems to be a complex problem. Where does one begin to change it?
The solution is multi-sourced. It’s a combination of a variety of things.
We have to start doing rainwater harvesting again. We have to embed this into the education system. We have to keep in mind virtual water. Our consumption of products like jeans, which use up a lot of water, is an issue. Think about Pakistan, for example, which has serious water problems. Pakistan exports cotton, which is a dirty water crop. So, those textiles are sold in NY. If someone buys a cotton shirt, they’re not supporting the farmer. The farmer gets maybe 1% of the profits. The majority is going to some executives in NYC. Superprofits.
Start creating a consciousness. Write about it. Blog about it. Make films like Paani. Push corporations to change their ways. Buy products made of resources that consume less water, like hemp. Purchasing power can also change companies’ ways.
Just get a collective consciousness on the story behind water.